SANA'A // Rights activists are concerned about the state of press freedom in Yemen after government-backed delegates won the majority of the seats on the board of the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate. About 1,000 journalists elected a new 12-member board and a chairman last week. Yaseen al Masodi, the deputy editor of the state-run al Thawra newspaper, was named chairman, winning 483 votes against 392 for Raufah Hassan, an independent candidate and the first woman to run for the post. Candidates supporting the ruling People's General Congress took six seats on the board, including the chair, while the Joint Meeting Parties, an opposition coalition, obtained four seats. Two seats were taken by independent candidates. More than 90 candidates contested the seats. "The first challenge the YJS is likely to face is the question of defending press freedom as its chairman holds a high-ranking government post and was nominated by the ruling party; the new board will be tested when it has to deal with abuses of press freedom," said Sami Ghalib, a former YJS board member and editor of al Nedaa, an independent weekly newspaper. Ghalib said the voting was based on the candidates' political affiliation rather than their professional skills. "The political parties dominated the conference; journalists were mobilised to vote for political parties' lists rather than journalists representing the profession." Ghalib said this would make it difficult for the board to remain neutral on issues where journalists are complaining about government harassment or restrictions on access of information. "It is expected that the board, composed of government and opposition members, will see some disagreements when it comes to taking the position of journalists. This will make some journalists lose faith in the ability to defend them and might lead to split of the union." Saeed Thabet, who won a seat on the board and is a member of the opposition Islamist Islah party, however, denied that a pro-government chairman and five pro-state members of the board would weaken the syndicate's position on press freedom. "I do agree that press freedom issues are the main challenge that we have to face. However, neither the chairman nor the board can bypass the general assembly. "The board will not be lenient with the government when it comes to press freedom issues. We have clearly announced in our closing statement our rejection of government draft laws on information and websites," Mr Thabet said. The draft law on access to information concedes that access to information is one of the basic rights of citizens, but stipulates that the release of information should not damage national security or social cohesion, Yemen's foreign relations, the national economy and public and private economic, trade and financial interests. The draft law on websites also sets conditions. "We hope our battle for freedoms will not be rigorous. We are, however, ready to confront the government if we are forced into that; our freedom is a priority to us," Thabet said. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, vowed to free up the state-controlled broadcast media industry during an address to a journalists' union conference last week. Mr Saleh ordered the information ministry to "swiftly draw up a bill authorising the establishment of satellite radio and television stations by individuals or non-governmental organisations". He also ordered the information ministry to grant licences for new newspapers, which had been suspended for more than a year and directed state agencies to facilitate journalists' access to information on economic, development or security issues. Last year, Reporters Without Borders' ranked Yemen 155 out of 173 countries in its press freedom index. The report noted that independent and opposition journalists faced restrictions and even prosecution for their work, and that dozens were arrested and others physically attacked in the street. Last year, a report by Women Journalists Without Constraints, a non-governmental organisation, showed cases of press freedom violations jumped to 248 from 113 in 2007. "Press freedom in Yemen will continue to be abused and restricted and the public will continue to play a less influential and active role in political and social development unless new legislation securing the right of access to information and circulation is passed," said the report made public in February. Thabet, of Islah, said it was not surprising that political parties were active in the election, but that he doubted they would be able to influence the board. "There was strong race from independent candidates, but unfortunately, their votes were dispersed not because of the interference of political parties but due to the big number of candidates," he said. "It is not a problem that journalists have political affiliation. But, it is dangerous if the syndicate bows to the dictation of political parties. I hope that we will all take the side of the profession and leave our political affiliation outside." The YJS was established in 1990 and counts among its members journalists who work for state-run newspapers and broadcasters, political parties, the military and independent newspapers. "This strange composition of the syndicate involving even military personnel working for army newspapers means there is a lack of conformity in the journalistic community," Ghalib said. "This is one of the main challenges of the YJS as it calls for solidarity among members, but where abuses of press freedom are concerned only independent journalists show up and some courageous ones working for state media. Such lack of harmony weakens the syndicate's function as journalism should be free from control of the state and political parties. "Refining the membership is, therefore, a challenge that awaits the new board."